InterviewWhat 2 Broadway Musicals Have to Say About Voter MobilizationJagged Little Pill depictscontemporary kitchen table topics. SIX is comprised of a half dozen Tudor queens. Both are about waking up and finding a voice.
September 22, 2020
“These are not times for the weak of heart.”
So sings Alanis Morissette in her 2008 song “Torch.” The lyrics also appear in one of the final tableaux of the Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, which places the Grammy winner’s discography into a contemporary story. The mantra rang true 12 years ago, and as it now plays in producer Eva Price’s head every day, it rings true today.
“Our art form is more than entertainment,” Price says. “It’s about changing people’s perceptions. It’s about opening their eyes to uncomfortable truths that they might not have realized exist in the world and within their own families.” Although the musical (like all of Broadway and most theatres in the country) is indefinitely shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, that ethos transcends the fourth wall and into the real-life conversations happening against the backdrop of an election “that is fighting for the soul of our nation.”
The show, featuring a book by Oscar winner Diablo Cody, explores trans-racial adoption, sexual trauma, the opioid crisis, and navigating the beginnings of adulthood amid it all, putting it in a unique position—and perhaps responsibility—to champion those “kitchen table conversations.” Even if they can’t talk about them on stage, they’re still going to talk about them; what’s on the line makes it too important not to. “The things that this show stands for are inherent to the conversations that this election is driving voters to have,” Price says, emphasizing the urgency for the production as a whole to “utilize our efforts and our energy to actually get out the vote and implement change in the kitchen tables across America.”
Such subject matter has in part equipped the cast to carry on those conversations. Stars like Elizabeth Stanley have remained vocal about voter registration via social media and have taken up the cause through grassroots efforts within the community, such as Brandon Victor Dixon and Rory O’Malley’s #MeBecomesWe campaign.
Additionally, four Jagged Little Pill cast members—Celia Rose Gooding, Lauren Patten, Laurel Harris, and Kathryn Gallagher—will lead “Arts and Advocacy” sessions touching on LGBTQIA+ and race issues, assault and harassment, and more at the Center for Popular Democracy’s Transformation 2020 virtual summit, taking place September 24–26. “That’s the amazing thing about this cast,” Price says. “They’re activists at heart, and they’re incredibly informed.” The three-day event will conclude with the premiere of a new video featuring the cast.
These times and these conversations may not be for the weak of heart, but Price still finds some optimism in that one lyric: “It is a challenging and at some points terrible place that we’re in, but they will get better, because that’s what happens when the times change. It tells you there will be other times soon, and we’ll get to those once we get through these.”
Another show, one decidedly not about American politics or contemporary kitchen table topics, is also using its platform to empower and enlighten while staying dark: SIX. The high-energy, U.K.-born musical imagines the six wives of King Henry VIII as a girl group, with nary a U.S. Constitution in sight. Still, they’re working to get out the vote in the States.
“The whole implicit message of the show is female-identifying people taking up space, using their voice, and saying, ‘There’s real power in being here and telling my story,’” explains the show’s co-creator Lucy Moss, who would have made her official Broadway debut as composer and director March 12. The musical was to open that night when the Broadway shutdown was announced just hours before. “It’s these six people on stage saying, ‘Listen to me. This is my time.’”
Without a show to promote directly, SIX’s social media presence has offered women of all identities a space to share their voice as well. Through a partnership with Rock the Vote and its We Vote, We Rise campaign, the production encouraged fans to share stories about their first time voting (many Gen-Z fans commented that the upcoming presidential election would be their first), the first woman in their family to vote, and more. Moss (and her collaborator Toby Marlow) took part in Playbill’s Women in Theatre centennial celebration of the 19th Amendment. And in lieu of ticket sales, the official website became a hub for voter registration tools.
“Our cast tends to be younger people,” Moss says, noting that these queens have a pop flair with a sound closer to Top 40 than baroque. “So I think it makes a lot of sense to encourage young people to vote and use their voice. It’s a call to action for anyone who feels that they’ve been marginalized. I like to think that’s what the queens themselves would do if they were around today.”
At 26, the London-based Moss is among the youngest creatives in Broadway history. But despite the inability to vote herself (and with no pretense regarding her own grasp on the American political system), she recognizes her responsibility to champion others. “We’re in a unique position in the industry with a younger sensibility about social justice issues. And we’re equally in a unique position to make changes and insist on things that other young people might not.”
As Catherine Parr, the sixth and final queen, vows to channel her energy into her own accomplishments and not into her relation to her husband, she exclaims, “We have a voice.” She then doubles down on the lyric, this time, with a (per the libretto) “riff to ruffle their ruffs.”
Moss claims she doesn’t have the vocal chops for such a riff herself, but the sentiment and vigor are both there: “We feel a big pressure to make sure we're on the right side of history and make sure we're making the change that people are calling for.